Turkey's ruling AK Party and opposition nationalists unveiled plans on Tuesday to ease a ban on the wearing of the Muslim headscarf in universities that try to address the worries of the country's secular elite.
Turkey's Islamist-rooted ruling party, thanks to a deal with the nationalist opposition, was poised Tuesday to make good on a six-year-old electoral promise to allow the Islamic heascarf in universities.
The agreement, which provides for two constitutional amendments, was reached late Monday after weeks of bargaining between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Devlet Bahceli.
Together, the two easily have the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to amend the constitution, but debate over the potentially explosive issue is far from over in Turkey, which has a 99-percent Muslim population and a strictly secular regime.
Erdogan had promised before his first electoral victory in 2002 that the "unfair (headscarf) ban will be abolished," but is in a position to deliver only now - thanks to the AKP's spectacular re-election in July - despite strong opposition from secular Turks.
Erdogan, a former Islamist whose wife and daughters wear the Islamic-style head cover, says respect for basic human rights is his sole motivation in pushing through the amendments.
But many experts say lifting the ban upheld by the country's highest courts - and, in a 2005 ruling, by the European Court of Human Rights - will cause immense problems and deal a blow to the separation of state and religion, one of the founding principles of the modern Turkish Republic.
Ergun Ozbudun, a professor of constitutional law who heads a committee set up after the July election to overhaul Turkey's existing basic law, the legacy of a 1980 military coup, strongly opposes the move.
"This is truly dangerous," he said, warning that the Islamic-style headscarf could end up on the heads of grade school girls.
There is a distinction between headscarves in Turkey:
A majority of women use the traditional "basortusu" - "head cover," in Turkish - that is more or less loosely knotted under the chin for protection against the elements or for modesty; it can come off just as easily as it can be tied on and raises no objections.
The self-explanatory "turban", on the other hand, is an elaborate wrap-around covering that never comes off in public and is widely seen as a symbol of political Islam and defiance of the secular republic; this what the women in the families of most AKP leaders wear.
MHP leader Bahceli gave assurances Tuesday that the agreement with the AKP would allow only the former on campuses and not the militant "turban," but the secularists are sceptical and their opposition is strong and widespread.
"A regime change is under way in Turkey and we must oppose it by all democratic means," warned a high-ranking government bureaucrat, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity.
Once the Islamic headscarf is allowed on campus, he said, it will inevitably make its way into the civil service and become, eventually, a source of religious and social pressure on millions of women who do not cover up and on their families.
Lifting the ban "will cause chaos on campus," warned Fatih Hilmioglu, president of Inonu University in the northern city of Samsun, echoing the sentiment of most university presidents in the country.
"The prime minister is using this uniform (the headscarf) to distract public opinion from the country's real problems," said Cevdet Selvi, vice president of the main opposition, the social-democrat Republican People's Party.
He also lashed out at Erdogan for a recent controversial remark that, "Unfortunately, we have adopted many immoral aspects of the West that run counter to our values."
His words created a furore in the non-religious media, which almost unanimously asked whether he was referring to the fact that most European women do not cover up and, if so, how he could possibly hope to lead his country into the European Union whose values he considers to be "immoral."
Date created : 2008-01-29